Legendary British rock icons Judas Priest are still hard at work, four decades on into their storied career. After releasing an ambitious, underrated double album, Nostradamus and touring behind it in 25 countries, the band’s gifted and self-proclaimed “Metal God,” singer Rob Halford found over 37 minutes of his time to talk to me on behalf of Blogcritics on the afternoon of December 5, 2008.
The main subject at hand was the recently reissued (ass-whoopin’) Halford band Resurrection CD/Live At Rock in Rio III DVD package, but the interview eventually covered all aspects of his career, including the Trent Reznor-produced Two project, his short-lived aggressive metal group Fight, and of course, Judas Priest.
Calling from his place in Phoenix, Arizona, to mine in Quincy, MA, the “Metal God” made this once-in-a-lifetime interview an extremely insightful and very conversational one. When all was said and done, Mr. Halford easily ranked as the best and most gracious interview subject I’ve ever had. Editing it down was a challenge, but here are the highlights I think you’ll enjoy.
It’s been quite a year for you, with the release of the new Judas Priest album (Nostradamus), the ensuing tour, even the Fight War of Words film did pretty good. So how do you feel about all that?
Well, just over the moon. It’s been a really sensational year, and to get the 2 Grammy nominations like we did 48 hours ago, it’s like the icing on the cake…. That was just, out of the blue to get 2 Grammy nods. The year has been a very powerful one, a very fulfilling one.
I was going to bring that up. You never know what type of metal they’re listening to over there at the Academy, but congratulations on the Grammy nods definitely.
Thank you very much, yeah. I’ve been a Grammy voting member myself for many, many years.
And the crazy thing is, because I was probably in some obscure part of Europe when all the voting was going on, and my mailing thing just got slightly screwed up, I never saw the fact that Priest was on the list on the initial ballot. So it was a complete surprise to me. [He was alerted to these nods via texts and emails to his Blackberry about an hour after the 1st Annual Grammy Nominations show finished, then went to the Grammys web page and saw them for himself.] It was just amazing and absolutely overwhelming….
Moving on to the Rio [III] DVD…. It has 15 great songs on it that encompasses your whole career with Fight, Halford and Judas Priest but I’m wondering, is that the whole show? Or were there any songs that didn’t make the cut that you remember playing that night in 2001?
I believe it’s everything Charlie, from the first note to the last. There were no extras, or I don’t recall us going back out to do an encore session because time was tight. We looked through all the footage that we were grateful to receive from the Rock In Rio people, who were very generous in handing it over to me a few years after the event. And it’s been kind of waiting in the archives to be looked at and treated. So I’m pretty sure it’s all there, Charlie. I’d be surprised if there’s anything else. When I watched it, it was exactly as was planned with the setlist and everything. The only real two, real moments, new moments was the extra tracks “God Bringer of Death” and “Fetish” from the Resurrection remastered CD.
Back to the live show part of it, was it a conscious effort on your part to issue a live show based not only on top-level performance, which Rio clearly was, but on audience interaction? Because it seemed there was just 200,000 crazy Brazilians singing every word. Even if there wasn’t a word, they were singing.
[Laughing] That’s just the way they are down there, Charlie. They are just so mad and passionate down there about metal music, and they know all the tunes and everything. The setlist that we played was the setlist that we’d been working with for most of the Halford Resurrection World Tour. But as far as interaction and everything, that was just real spontaneity on the part of the metal heads at the gig. You just can’t help but feel to interact with something like that you know, especially that magic moment at the end when they all sing “Breaking The Law.”
I was just going to ask about this moment, so what was that like? You were serenading the crowd, then all of a sudden—
Yeah I think I started singing a couple of lines and then they were so loud, I couldn’t hear myself. So I just turned the mic over to them and they started wailing away at it. So that was just a bit of metal magic.
You included in that Rio set a couple of great and I’d say essential Fight tracks, “Into the Pit” in particular. With Fight there were some notable differences vocally from Priest and the energy of the music. For instance, there was I would say more a snotty, punk-ish attitude on “Nailed To The Gun.” So where did you get the influence to go that route with the Fight stuff, and the death metal-ish growls on War of Words?
I think it’s just determined by the music that you surround yourself with. … For the vocal work on the Fight stuff, particularly the first one, WofW, that just seemed very natural for me to do. I don’t think I really stretched that much to be quite honest. … I don’t think I was looking to be overly influenced by any other singers or anything like that. I was just enjoying writing the music for the first time because as you know, all the stuff from WofW came from myself. And that was just a very special moment for me because I wasn’t even aware I was capable of doing something like that because I’ve always written with other people.
So, to actually kind of write that music as I did back in Phoenix around ’92, ’93, whenever it was, that was a fantastic feeling.
Now my next question has to do with Resurrection. Is this the same remaster that you released on iTunes in 2006, or is this a brand new remix of the album?
Yeah, it might have been buffed a bit, you know gone through the carwash one more time, but essentially it’s what was released digitally. … As you said Charlie, it’s a very complete package, the presentation, so it seemed to make more sense than ever to actually include it with the DVD, and the documentary and all the other goodies that are in there. Because it really just ties up that whole launch, that whole period of what I was doing, which has become quite a benchmark in my career.
Speaking of that whole period, you mentioned the newer tracks “Fetish” and “God Bringer of Death.” I’m wondering, when were they recorded? And part two of that question is: I hear there’s at least 9 more of those demos from the Resurrection sessions. Are any of them going to see the light of day?
Well, I don’t know about the extra 9 tracks. I don’t know where you might have heard that from. Probably the old reliable Internet (chuckling). Yeah, you might be right. In fact, I’m a little bit out of the loop with that right now. I do know that we have some extra material left over from the Resurrection sessions, and those 2 tracks [“God Bringer” and “Fetish”] were the most complete efforts that we got, so it made sense to include them. I mean, there might be fragments of stuff left over … in an office in Phoenix or a warehouse in L.A., one of two places [He will “investigate”]. Anyway, they were from the sessions, Charlie. They were not recently written songs [as some fans had wondered].
Did you get to perform “The One You Love To Hate (featuring Bruce Dickinson)” live on the Resurrection tour and if you did, did you try to sing Dickinson’s parts or did you just do your own thing?
We did actually do it one time in a club in London. Myself, Jeff [Albright] and Bruce got on stage. … I forget the name of the venue now. The Astoria? Yeah, you’re right. It was the Astoria. I know we’ve got footage of that some place. But that was the only time, Charlie, the only time we played together live.
I was listening to “Silent Screams,” one off my favorites [from Resurrection] and was wondering: What periods of your life it reference, [knowing] it’s autobiographical?
I think it’s just a generalization of where I was at that particular time. I think I was just making a broad-based statement about my life in general. It wasn’t specifically aimed at anything. … I knew what I wanted to do before I even wrote the lyrics. Musically, I knew in my head what I wanted to try and achieve [he wrote it in 20 minutes with co-writer Bob Marlette in his backyard]. Some of the greatest things come quickly and easily.
The live Rio version of “Silent Screams” is a pitch lower [than on record], in Drop C. Was this done on purpose, to give a more darker feel?
Yeah, I know there’s a certain feel and sound that makes the music darker and a little bit more intense when you drop it like that. And so you do what feels right. I love Concert Pitch. That’s a nice natural way of doing things because that’s what I was born and raised on. But in recent years, dropping a tone or dropping half a tone just became part of the way things were being done, especially in metal. That’s the world Metal Mike and Pat Lachman were already in, so we basically stuck with the feelings and the vibes of that dropped tone.
Wrapping up my Rio portion of the interview, was there any thought given to releasing that concert itself as an official live CD?
No. Again, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Roy Z did a fantastic job with the sound. In fact, I think we’re one of the first people to provide you with the ability to switch into the onstage sound apart from the surround sound. You can actually flip it into the sound that we experienced when we were performing on stage using the monitors. But I don’t know, anything’s possible.
A friend of mine brought up to me that you were thinking of releasing the Voyeurs demos from your Two project. Is this correct?
Yes. The bigger goal of that is to try and get the actual music that I did with Trent Reznor … and get that back somehow because then I’d like to provide the fans with both sides of what Two was about at that point musically. There was the demos and [they] were all practically completed. But we shifted gear and worked with Trent and Ray Riendau. Most people are only aware of the final outcome of that collaboration. So we just got to get through all the legal business stuff.
A lot of people are talking about that as I’ve been chatting to friends around the world about this Rio DVD. Everybody’s remembering and thinking about the Two record. And I think that’s very cool because, you put some of those tracks on now and they just click into active rock radio and Top 40. … And that just shows you the foresight that Trent had as a musician and as a producer. You can really feel Trent’s influence on songs like “I Am A Pig.” He’s just ahead of the game in music to a certain extent…. But yeah, I think it would be useful if the demand was there … we’ll do it.
How did Judas Priest decide to get involved in the videogame Rockband and decide to be one of the first bands in April (of 2008) to have its record, Screaming For Vengeance available to download through the system?
It’s a Sony thing. They’re behind all of that. I mean of all the people they could pick and choose within that catalog, we were absolutely thrilled they chose Priest and S.F.V. … and the same with Guitar Hero. … So yeah, it’s really cool to be in that world, [though] I’m rubbish when I try to play video games.
Your voice has held up amazingly well after all these years. What challenges do you at this point in your life face as a singer? And how would you compare your singing ability now as opposed to 10-20 years ago?
It’s different obviously; the physical challenges of getting old have come into play. Having said that, I listen to what I did on Nostradamus and I feel pretty good about it all. Robert Plant said recently, “I wish to Christ I hadn’t screamed my tits off in those early days of Led Zeppelin. People want me to do it now, 40 years later and I can’t do it.” That’s just a fact of life, you know. See, when you’re putting on a show, you just have to make the subtle adjustments to get through the music. But it’s all doable. I don’t worry about it that much. I can still cover a lot of territory.
Did you ever have a vocal coach?
I never did, Charlie. No, I’m all self-taught. …
My next question has to do with Nostradamus. Now, this is a great record. It has one of my all-time favorite Judas Priest songs, “Revelations.” What made you as a band want to do this record and was everybody on board for this from the beginning?
Yeah, we always wanted to do something like for as long as we can remember being in a band. It’s just that it took forever to get around to providing enough time that you need to do something of this magnitude (1 hour and 40 minutes). It took almost 2 years or writing and recording…. So, to finally have the chance to cover the life of Nostradamus was an epiphany, really. Everything about that man seemed to kind of fall into lockstep with everything that we wanted to cover musically. So that was just a tremendous feeling of excitement. … We knew the story of his life through the research that we’d done before we even played a note. So yeah, everybody was ready for it [the band and label, Sony]. Everybody was just geared up to get this great achievement into the world of metal.
I want to thank you for taking every minute out of your hectic life to talk to me on behalf of Blogcritics Magazine. It’s been a thrill. Is there any other thing you want to promote between now and February?
No, this is it for now. We’re just looking forward to a nice Holiday season to relax and recover from 7 months of world touring and 75,000 miles in about 25 countries. So we’re still coming down from that and just enjoying this little bit of a break, and look forward to seeing all of our metalheads when we get back out on the road early next year.
Now is this running through Europe and America?
I’ll be looking forward to the east coast trip, that’s for sure.
Thank you, Charlie. All the best, my friend. Have a great Christmas. See you next year.